St Andrews is a beautiful coastal village about an hour and a half north of Edinburgh. If you’ve had your fill of the big city and want to see what a smaller Scottish village looks like, or perhaps you just really like golf, St Andrews is the place for you.
As part of the Kingdom of Fife, (which you can see from Edinburgh across the Forth of Firth), St Andrews has played a major role for centuries, not just in Scotland, but in the world. The St Andrews University is the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of the best in the UK; the St Andrews Cathedral was once the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland; the golf course is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest in the world; the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews managed golf internationally until 2005, and more Open Championships have been held there than anywhere else.
In other words, this little village of less than 20,000 inhabitants (many of which are university students) is well worth visiting. There’s one problem though, especially for backpackers. It’s not cheap there.
With the cheapest hotel or B&B in town costing over $50 a night for a solo traveler (or $75 for a couple), visiting St Andrews for more than just an afternoon can be daunting to the budget traveler or backpacker. However, there is hope. If you’re on a budget, the St Andrews Tourist Hostel is the place for you. The location couldn’t be better – just around the corner from the bus station and across the street from Rector’s Cafe (where Google Maps incorrectly puts the pin for the hostel). Also, it’s centered between the golf course, the cathedral and the botanical gardens, all of which are within 15 minutes walking distance.
For only £11 ($14) a night (£12 on the weekends), you can get a bed in an 8-bed dorm. Smaller dorms are available for a couple dollars more. With only a couple dozen beds available, the hostel warrants the term cozy. There are four showers and toilets (I never had to wait) and a self-service kitchen with lots of pots and pans for cooking. The rooms are rather bare, but I’m told an upgrade is coming in 2019 with new mattresses, blankets and pillows, as well as lockers. I would recommend bringing a pair of pajamas if you plan to stay there this winter.
The common room is the highlight of the hostel, with a big-screen TV and dozens of DVDs to choose from. There’s also a bookshelf with plenty of reading material, and a few board games too. There are model ships around the room and other pieces of artwork. Sadly, the Internet is lacking, which isn’t particularly uncommon in Scotland. Besides, unless you’re a digital nomad like me and need to spend hours each day working online, you’re not going to need much Internet at the hostel. Get out and enjoy St Andrews while you’re there, and visit a cafe or the pub downstairs if you need a bit of WiFi.
The weekends do get a bit busy and Scotland is known for large quantities of alcohol, so I might recommend staying during the week if you’re not the party type or want a quieter stay. Otherwise, enjoy the weekend parties. Oh, and Wednesday is the weekly ceilidh (Scottish folk dance).
Getting to St Andrews from Edinburgh is very easy. The X54 and X59 buses leave every half an hour and only cost £12. You can catch them from the Edinburgh Bus Station or several bus stops along Princes Street. If you’re taking the X54, you’ll have to switch to the X59 in Cupar.
Another option is to take the train up to Leuchars and then switch to any of the 99 buses (99, 99A, 99D) to St Andrews. This way will cost about £20 between the train and the bus (less backpacker-friendly). It will get you there half an hour quicker than the bus, so it’s the better option if time is of the essence.
Once you’re in St Andrews, nearly everything is in walking distance. The main portion of the village is less than a mile square. Even if you’re as slow a walker as my father (no offense, Dad), you’ll still make it out to the beach in under 20 minutes.
As a budget traveler, chances are you’re not going to be able to afford many restaurants anywhere in the UK, After living in the UK off and on for the past four years, I’ve learned that the supermarkets are a backpacker’s best friend. Almost next door to the hostel is a Tesco Metro, and there are plenty of meals you can purchase for under $5. Some suggestions are bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes), fish and chips, a bowl of Scottish soup, porridge for breakfast or, if you really want one, a pizza.
On the other hand, there are a couple of places to eat in St Andrews I would really recommend. The first is called Waffles. They prepare a really good Belgian (Liege) waffle and have a couple dozen different topping options. If you want a healthy meal, you can get the savory option (without the sugar baked inside) and with toppings such as a full Scottish breakfast, or a poached egg and salmon (my dad’s favorite). Their coffee is also surprisingly good, as recommended to me by the food bloggers behind 2FoodTrippers.
The other place you absolutely have to try (and which is surprisingly budget-friendly) is Jannetta’s Gelateria. This gelato parlor has been operating in St Andrews for four generations. They actually make real gelato (with whole milk rather than the cream used in ice cream) and the rest of their ingredients are organic and locally sourced as well. They have dozens of flavors, many of which are particular to Scotland, such as whiskey or gin flavors, berry flavors, and tablet (Scottish toffee). I went with the orange and ginger chocolate chip, and mince pie. They were delicious! Best of all, a scoop of gelato in a cup or cone is only £1.90 ($2.40). As you might expect, this place gets crowded, even in winter.
As small as St Andrews is, there are actually quite a few things to do in town. Best of all, some of the best attractions are free. Here are my recommendations.
St Andrews Cathedral
Although settlements in St Andrews date back nearly 6000 years, the present town started around AD 1140, with the cathedral as one of the first projects in 1160. As mentioned earlier, St Andrews was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland until the Scottish Reformation in the mid-1500s. After the Reformation, the town crumbled. Of the cathedral, only a couple of walls and one tower still stand. It’s not the same as visiting Canterbury or Gloucester Cathedrals, but I actually like the ruins even more. They have a beautiful sadness to them which tingles the senses. Entry to the grounds is free, although you do have to pay £5 if you want to visit the museum and climb the tower.
St Andrews Golf Course
Did you know that golf was invented in Scotland? So were tons of other things, but that’s a different story. The golf course in St Andrews is the oldest in the world, dating back to the early 15th century. There are actually seven courses, but the Old Course is the highlight. It’s an 18-hole course, par 72, and measures over 4 miles in length. There are a ton of cool features, the most iconic of which is the 700-year-old Swilcan Bridge. That actually might be the most iconic golf structure in the world. Just keep your wits about you if you want photos, as you’ll have to walk onto the active golf course to get them.
It’s free to walk on the grounds (although you might be yelled at by players). You can also play on any of the courses, despite the fact that tickets for 2019 sold out within a week of going on sale! As the Golf Course Website states, “Single golfers with suitable handicaps who wish to play the Old Course without an existing tee time should check in at the Old Pavilion on the day of play and the staff will do their best to join them with a two or three-ball group. There is no obligation on the existing golfers to make up a four-ball but common practice is that single golfers are warmly welcomed. With patience, this can be successful but there are no guarantees.” Green fees range from £8 to £180 ($10 to $230) depending on the course and the time of year.
St Andrews Castle
Much like the rest of the town, St Andrews Castle dates back to the 12th century. It had a long and colorful history but fell into disrepair in the 1600s. The ruins are now available for exploration and while perhaps not as impressive as the ruins of Urquhart Castle, it’s still worth a visit if you like castles. The entrance fee is £9 ($11), which includes admission to the museum and tower at the cathedral. If you’re on a really tight budget, you might have to consider skipping the castle, as I did. You can always get some photos of it from up on the road or down the beach.
St Andrews Botanical Gardens
I missed this attraction too, mainly due to the fact that it was pretty much constantly raining for the 10 days I was in St Andrews. The gardens are located in the southwestern corner of town. Since I didn’t go, there’s not a lot I can say about them. I do usually like visiting botanical gardens in the cities I visit, although they’re usually free and the one in St Andrews costs £6 to enter. Perhaps not the best budget option either.
For the budget traveler, there’s no better activity in St Andrews than walking along the beach. Around the golf course and south of the cathedral are sandy beaches stretching for miles. Between these is a rocky coastline full of tide pools and a big stone pier. You’d probably have to be as crazy as me to go swimming in the water, but I firmly believe that cold water swimming is really healthy for you.
St Andrews Day
Finally, if you happen to be in St Andrews around November 30th (as I was), you’ll get to enjoy St Andrews Day. This isn’t just a holiday for the town, but an international holiday for Saint Andrew. In St Andrews, they have a street market throughout the afternoon, followed by a street party and massive ceilidh. Then there’s a parade of drummers leading the crowd down to the beach where they light off fireworks from the pier. As you might have seen in my Hogmanay post, Scotland loves their fireworks. Even though it was pouring rain, several hundred of us braved the cold to watch the 8-minute display which included a beautiful replica of the Scottish Saltire flag (which instantly disappeared in all the smoke). Then again, my video and photos simply sucked. How are you supposed to record when the rain is constantly coating your lens? At least my Samsung S8 phone is waterproof!
In a nutshell, you could easily spend $250 on a two-day trip to St Andrews, or you could spend $50 if you’re on a budget. That’s still a lot, but the UK is expensive (a 2-day trip to the Isle of Skye is going to cost at least a couple hundred with the cheapest options). If you have the time, I would definitely recommend going to St Andrews. It is possible to just visit for a couple hours, but why not stay at the hostel and spend some more time at the beach?
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If you’re visiting Scotland and looking for more to do than just visiting St Andrews, here are some other activities you might enjoy.
- A Day of Adventures with Nevis Range in Fort William, Scotland
- What It’s Like to Take the Hogwarts Express in Scotland
- Is a Day Tour from Edinburgh to Loch Ness Worth It?
- Edinburgh Excursions: Spending an Afternoon at Go Ape Peebles
- 10 Activities for The Perfect Day Trip from Edinburgh
- Explore the Isle of Lewis and Harris to See Scotland’s Best
- A Cruise is the Best Way to Explore Loch Ness
- My Amazing Week on the Hebridean Hopper with Haggis Adventures
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.